We have fed our sea for a thousand years
And she calls us, still unfed,
Though there's never a wave of all her waves
But marks our English dead:
We have strawed our best to the weed's unrest,
To the shark and the sheering gull.
If blood be the price of admiralty,
Lord God, I hope they take Visa!-"The Song of the Dead"
I am typing this while looking at a small cube of teak from the orlop deck of HMS Victory, the deck on which Nelson bled out his life and attained immortality in the aftermath of the fleet action at Trafalgar. Yesterday, 202 years after that epic battle, the Royal Navy announced that it would be slashing its blue-water fighting force by half due to financial reasons. With a shrinking defense budget increasingly allocated to supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, rumors were also afloat (about the only things that were off the coast of England) that one of the RN's overseas stations might be abandoned too, to help further tighten the belt.
From the 17th Century to World War II, Great Britain deliberately maintained a fleet large enough to defeat the next two largest navies in the world. Conscious of her position as an island nation, freedom of the seas was not just a philosophy, it was the lifeblood that kept the heart of England's economy pumping. Despite being supplanted in this role by the United States in the postwar world, the Royal Navy remained a potent force on the world's oceans.
Maybe the world has changed enough that Britain no longer needs her "oaken walls". Maybe, but I doubt it. Her commerce still needs to be protected, and the English Channel isn't as wide as it once was. For a Royal Navy that hasn't been an underdog since the days of the Spanish Armada but is now "no better than a coastal defence force", let's hope the world remains a peacable place.
(Thanks to Marko for tipping me off to the sad news.)